Saturday, May 22, 2010

London Calling!

In 1984, I was five years into an undergrad education at UC Berkeley, and still had no degree in sight. I was lost. I was heartbroken over a girl. I had no direction. My GPA was in the gutter and I didn't know why, or what I was doing. So I did what any red-blooded American would do: I ran away. I bought a Eurail pass and took off for Europe with my backpack, some clothes, a journal, and some music tapes for a few months. It was one of the greatest things I ever did.

I arrived in London in September 1984, soon to be 23 years old, and it was the first time I'd ever been out of the country. When I emerged from the Tube station in Piccadilly Circus, it was the first time I'd ever laid eyes on land or buildings or sky that was not part of the U.S. It was intoxicating. So much so, in fact, that I lost my camera right away, on that first day, in that first half hour. Which put all my romantic notions in check and reminded me again what a freakin' doofus I can be. It was just a minor setback.

I bought a new camera right away, and then set about exploring the city. And fell in love. I loved everything about it that was not the U.S. I loved everything about it that was not my life. I loved the accents, the clothes, the architecture, the atmosphere--even the weather. I loved the music in the record stores. I went to my first English pub and ordered a half-pint, only to be told by the bartender that that's not what men do, as he put a full Guinness in front of me. I met an expatriate American waitress in a cafe who said it was easy to get work and I should never go back. I read George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and felt more "European" for doing so. I bought a black overcoat and took my picture in front of the factory that's on the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals. I met other lost, excited, bewildered young travelers at the youth hostel for food and drink and random exploring. I met a Canadian woman in line at a phone booth, and she said to come with her and her English boyfriend to a pub, so I did. We played darts and got drunk, and then we piled into their VW bug and drove to Salisbury, where they said I could stay overnight with them at his parents' place. Except his parents didn't approve of them bringing home a drunk American kid, so I spent the night in the VW bug, freezing and drunk, and then had to take a bus back up to London the next morning where all my stuff was. I went to plays and museums and vintage shops and Indian restaurants. I bought U2's Unforgettable Fire on cassette tape and listened to it over and over in my hostel bed and on the buses. I read David Copperfield. I took a day trip to Brighton and sat on the beach and pretended I was a mod in Quadrophenia. It was all so romantic and silly and awesome. I wrote a line in my journal one night that was a direct quote from a David Byrne song: "There is nothing that is stronger than the feeling that you get when your eyes are wide open." It was me, alone, learning how to live.

I'm leaving for London tomorrow, 26 years later, a completely different person. I look back on that kid and I feel kinda bad for him, kinda embarrassed for him, but also with great fondness at the memories. That was just one stop on my four-month trip, but it was the beginning, and in many ways was the beginning of my adulthood and the person I became. It changed everything.

Now I'm a middle-aged dork representing a videogame company, and am traveling with my co-workers to do some filming, podcasting, and writing, in London just for a day, and then to Guildford for the rest of the week. It's so odd to me that for all the traveling I've done over the years, I've never once been back to London, except as a stopover. And though I only get one day in the city, I'm looking forward to coming up the Tube station, just like my earnest and naive and much skinnier younger self did 26 years ago, and marvel at the sights and sounds of London.

Friday, May 7, 2010

O The Books I Haven't Read!

Hi guys! Wassup? We all know what I haven't been doing, so we won't even go there, sister, but one thing I can tell you that I *have* been doing a lot lately--due to a springtime hibernation mode--is reading. I was reading so much, in fact, that I decided to get hip with the Internet thing and sign up over at Goodreads. Just so I could start tracking stuff, and just be all anal about everything. You know, the way geeks do. And I gave you that link there so you can be friends with me there. Go ahead! Be not shy! I shall accept your friendship, and we shall talk about books, and all shall be good.

So, as I was adding books to my collection, and looking through others, and, while simultaneously looking at books that my kid is reading in school this year, I realized something quite shocking: There are a whole bunch of classics I've never read. Okay, maybe it's not shocking at all. I suppose it's true for a great many of us. Still, I like, in general, to think of myself as "well read," given that I've been steadily reading since, well, I learned how to read. And ya know, I was an English major at UC Berkeley. That was four (okay five) years of reading right there. But once I started making a list of those classics that we've supposedly all read, I realized how many I missed. This is just off the top of my head (there are many more):

Jeff Green's Pile of Shame
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (now read)
The Catcher in the Rye (reading now)
Moby Dick
The Grapes of Wrath
War And Peace
East of Eden
A Tale of Two Cities
Les Miserables
Most of Hemingway
...and this is not to mention all sorts of old Greek stuff, etc (though I did read the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid.)

Really, this list could go on and on. I think what I've been most bummed about is the American classics I've missed, especially Huckleberry Finn, which is what started this whole "I can't believe I haven't read that" thing in the first place. I've spent a whole lot of time reading humorists and other funny/satirical writers (Flann O'Brien, Bill Bryson, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, etc etc, but to have missed out on this book, and on Mark Twain in general, feels like such a gigantic fail. And now that I've read Huckleberry Finn, the fail is even more confirmed: It's a masterpiece, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny in places and an absolute triumph of a unique, sustained, unreliable narrator voice. Yeah, I agree with the general consensus that the last section with Tom Sawyer gets fairly insufferable, but there is so much that is so good up until that point, that, for me anyway, all is forgiven. That he wrote this over 100 years ago and still is as biting as ever makes it--like Don Quixote, another comic classic--genius in its timeless portrayal of human behavior in all its clueless, hapless indignity.

Interestingly, from here I've gone straight to Catcher in the Rye, and without ever having taken a course on either book or read one hifalutin' academic treatise on the subject, the link between Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield is palpable and obvious. What I wasn't expecting out of this book, since all I knew about it was that it's the bible of teen angst, is how damn funny it is, too.

In fact, though I'm beating myself for not having read these when younger, I think the greater truth is that I'm glad I'm reading them now, in my 40s, when it's a matter of choice, rather than a forced class assignment, with no one telling me how I should think or feel, or Why These Books Are Important. Also, I've just lived a lot more life myself. I can differentiate and appreciate better between what Huck and Holden are saying, and what the authors are saying about what they're saying. Reading reader comments about Catcher in the Rye, I see so many complaints about how unpleasant and screwed up Holden is, how he is not some kind of arbiter of cool teen angst, but all I can see is, well, yes, of course, because Salinger doesn't see him that way either. Is it not clear, from somewhere around page 3, that this kid is writing from some kind of loony bin/retreat, that his life has completely broken down? It's the very definition of an unreliable narrator. So though Holden makes us laugh, though we can cheer on his cutting dismissal of phonies and hot shots, the fact is, he's a mess, he's pathetic, and he's completely in denial of his own misery.

But, hey. Now I'm writing an English paper. Yikes. SCREW THAT. All I wanted to report here was how much I am enjoying my belated foray into the American classics. I've got two sitting on my nightstand coming up next: The Grapes of Wrath, and Faulkner's Light in August. All I've read of Steinbeck is Of Mice and Men. Faulkner, I'm a tad better on, having read a few in college, as well as The Unvanquished a few weeks ago. But I'm looking forward to continuing on.

And don't worry, I'm not forsaking my geeky and/or lowbrow reading! If I can't quite muster up the energy to go straight into Steinbeck, I may sneak in Jim Butcher's first book in the Dresden series, or maybe Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon. I will always be "slumming." Right now, though, I'm enjoying the meatier stuff. It's coinciding well with my hibernation, my feeling of needing to regroup and reassess before going forward with my life.

Now all I need is a desert island, and an endless supply of coffee, and I could just read for the rest of my days.